Ben Sasse Wants to Talk About Tocqueville, Not Marjorie Taylor Greene

Why a senator from the GOP heartland thinks today’s Trump-obsessed politics won’t stick around

A photo of Senator Ben Sasse within a larger photo illustration
Drew Angerer / Getty; The Atlantic
Editor’s Note: This article is part of our coverage of The Atlantic Festival. Learn more and watch festival sessions here.

Ben Sasse is worried about midlife crises. Not just for himself, but for every working American who feels that their future in the face of technological disruption is not as secure as that of previous generations. “We’re the first people in human history that are really going to see the end of lifelong work,” the Republican senator from Nebraska told The Atlantic’s editor in chief, Jeffrey Goldberg. “That unsettling of community and place raises lots of fundamental questions about what gives people happiness and meaning and connection and neighborliness, and almost everything that’s happening in our politics is downstream from that.”

Sasse has mulled these questions before. He built on his theory that the acrimony of modern politics can be mostly blamed on the rise of digital spaces and the death of neighborly connections and small communities in a 2018 book, Them, and has excoriated the most extreme elements of his party for playing into those fears during the pandemic.

But Sasse thinks there’s a way out of an era of loneliness exploited by the likes of Donald Trump, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Matt Gaetz. The small number of Americans who pay attention to politics on a daily basis, who make political ideology their primary identifier, “are pretty weird,” he told Goldberg. The majority of Americans want to find common ground, at least in their more immediate communities, Sasse argued—and that approach is precisely how American democracy can survive and move beyond the Trump era.

Sasse spoke with Goldberg during The Atlantic Festival today. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Jeffrey Goldberg: Right now, I’m going to be speaking with Senator Ben Sasse, Republican of Nebraska. Thank you for joining us at the digital Atlantic Festival on our fancy set.

Ben Sasse: Thank you. I wish we were at an actual embodied festival, but good to be with you.

Goldberg: One day. One day there’ll be a live audience in front of you. It’ll be shocking! But we’ll have you next year. I hope by then we’ll be able to be back live. So let’s just talk about American politics and the mood in the country. What’s wrong with American politics? And don’t take the full 25 minutes to answer that question. Try to answer that in a minute.

Sasse: Premature elaboration.

Goldberg: And then we’ll go from there. But let’s lift all the way up and describe for us, from your perspective, as an, obviously, a Republican [from the] Midwest heartland, but somebody who has veered in some fairly dramatic ways from what I would call the Trumpian norm or the new Trumpian norm. Give us a little bit of a diagnosis from where you sit.

Sasse: Well, you said pull all the way up, so I think that means we have to pull up above politics a little bit. We’re living through a digital revolution. I’m a historian by training, and I think 100 years from now, when you look back on this moment, people aren't going to talk very much about Donald Trump or about politics more generally. I think they’re going to talk about the fact that we’re living through one of the most transformative times in the history of technology and therefore economics and culture. Usually a historian’s job is to sort of trace change—continuity versus discontinuity over time, and usually it’s a pretty boring job because people always think they live at an inflection point in human history, and really there’s usually a lot more continuity than discontinuity. We just think there’s radical change because humans are narcissists and we’re at that moment. But retrospectively, we are going to think that change from an economy that’s mostly about atoms to mostly about bits and how that transforms work is the thing that’s happening in our time and place. We’re being unsettled from community. We’re the first people in human history that are really going to see the end of lifelong work. We’re going to have adolescent-like experiences in terms of identity crises for 40-, 45-, and 50-year olds, as you have to figure out what you’re going to do for the rest of your life, because the jobs you worked in were eaten by software. And that unsettling of community and place raises lots of fundamental questions about what gives people happiness and meaning and connection and neighborliness, and almost everything that’s happening in our politics is downstream from that.

Goldberg: Can you describe the manifestations of—I would call it the cognitive revolution, but you can call it whatever you want—the globalized linking of every human. The theory of Facebook was that it would be good to connect all human beings simultaneously and in real time, and instantly. There were some people who thought maybe human beings shouldn't be talking to all other human beings all the time. But can you talk about what you’ve noticed, the kind of change that’s been brought about by the social-media revolution in particular?

Sasse: Maybe, but I’m not sure.

Goldberg: Are you just saying no comment to that?

Sasse: No! Not “no comment.” But I wish Neil Postman were alive, because I think one of the great things that you find in technology critics and media critics in the past is that they were good at saying whenever there’s a change, there’s both a cost and benefit to this thing. We tend to want to be utopian or dystopian about all of it: “This new technology is going to make everything new! It’s going to usher in the eschaton!” or “The world is going to end tomorrow because of this new thing.” And usually it’s some of both. And just at the level of what new technology brings us economically, we are the richest people in all of human history at a consumer level. We get more high-quality, cheap stuff than any median middle-class society has ever been able to consume in history. There’s a lot of benefit to that. But it also means that our identities, which are fundamentally linked to work—we’re meant to work, we’re meant to produce, we’re meant to do things that benefit our neighbors. There’s so much less certainty that any productive thing you do is still going to be useful to somebody else one month, one year, one decade from now. And I think there’s a ton of angst in that.

And the idea that what people really needed—I don’t know if [Mark] Zuckerberg ever really said it precisely that way—but the idea that linking everybody together would give you this ability to have all these conversations that would make everything heavenly? Well, that’s just nuts, because the main thing people want is a family. The main thing they want is a few deep friendships, where you go after work in the evening, and whether or not there’s somebody who actually wants you bodily present to break bread with them and say you’re needed. That’s infinitely more important than how many Facebook friends you have. I think there’s some data that actually shows the more social-media relationships you have, the less likely you are to know the person who lives two doors from you. And happiness is highly correlated to knowing the person two doors from you. It’s not correlated to having 500 versus 5,000 social-media friends. I think what that really does is it expands your denominator for potential unhappiness.

You know, when you’re a little kid and your mom’s setting up the house for Christmas Eve or whatever holiday you’re about to celebrate as a family, it’s a pretty great thing when you’re 7 that you don’t have awareness of some famine or war that’s happening on the other side of the world, because you’re around that hearth with these people who love you and life is pretty dang great. Now, when you become an adult, you can’t be unaware of that distant stuff, not to sound like an ancient Stoic, but you do want to be happy by making a meaningful difference in the things you can control. And there are people that I’m called to love that are right here or 20 feet away or 200 yards away, and I think we tend to have too much consciousness right now of a global community and not nearly enough consciousness of an actual neighborhood around you.

Goldberg: You’re the current chairman of the Senate’s ancient-Stoic committee. Is that correct?

Sasse: I’m the chairman of a group of one, yes. Contentious elections.

Watch: Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg in conversation with Ben Sasse

Goldberg: Can you link what you’ve just talked about to anger and politics?

Sasse: Sure, I mean, just maybe nutpicking is a good place to pick up, right? Less than 14 percent of Americans pay attention to politics on a daily basis. A lot of people do that out of a sense of duty, so there are some thoughtful, engaged people in that 14 percent, but by and large, those 14 percent are pretty weird. The people who are making politics a primary community for themselves are displacing other communities that are more relevant today. But let’s be clear, I’m of the Eisenhowerian, one-cheer-for-politics school. The idea that government is the enemy, which is just a sort of shorthand for lazy right-wing stump speeches sometimes, isn’t true.

Government is necessary to maintain a framework for ordered liberty, but it’s mostly freedom from, so that you’re free to do all the stuff you’re supposed to do in terms of your actual local callings. And right now, there are a whole bunch of those 14 percent, and I think this is one of the places where Donald Trump is kind of illustrative, more than causal: Let’s do a two-by-two matrix. If you’ve got an x-axis, which is ideology, and you’ve got progressive, center-left, center, center-right, whatever we’re going to call the right in the future—the crowd out in the middle on that axis, the evaporation of the moderates, is pretty obvious in the data. Pew and Gallup, I think, say that in the mid-’90s, about 26 percent of Americans defined themselves as moderates, and they were higher-propensity voters than people right or left of them. Today, about 7 percent of Americans define themselves as centrists or moderates, and they’re less likely to vote than people right and left.

Goldberg: What has caused that? Is it just social pressure, tribalism, what is that? What is it that makes radical centrism so irrelevant in the conversation right now?

Sasse: So I’ll answer you first, but I want to make sure we have the framework. Let’s do a y-axis of political engagement or attention. We’ll come back to mine, but stay with yours for a minute. I think in a world where it’s more 1870 than 1900—if we’re living through a digital revolution that is transforming the nature of work, and one of the only analogues to it would be industrialization and urbanization in the late 19th century. Cities were pretty dang uninhabitable in 1870. By 1910, they were nice places to live. But you went from having lots of the community and social capital of the Tocquevillian, agrarian village, where people knew each other, they had common cause, they had purpose, and they had a consciousness and identity that was about things they could largely control. What was happening way off in distant politics didn’t capture their attention most of the time. But when you moved to cities with early industrialization because of push and pull factors—pull to factory, push from agriculture—that had become so much more productive with new technologies, you didn’t need as many people to do it. Ultimately, cities became habitable, but it wasn’t politics that got us there. It was the rebuilding of a lot of social capital in those cities when you arrived. I think if we’re living through a revolution, a digital revolution, the nature of work, a sense of identity related to productivity, there’s a sense that people are helpless. And so then you want politics to solve this distant, disruptive challenge, and politics isn’t well equipped to do that.

So I think the evaporation of the center is partly ideological as people look for politicians right and left to solve their problems. But I think the bigger issue is this y-axis of attention. And that gets to your point about social media and the way we engage, the way we get our information or our news. If your y-axis is political engagement, the middle evaporating there is a much bigger problem than the middle that’s evaporating ideologically. And I think the upper tier is political addiction. The lower tier is disengagement, and the middle tier is like normal people: middlebrow, I’ve got a duty to be engaged as a citizen, but I don’t want this to be my primary community. I care about my neighborhood, my co-religionists; I care about my sports-team loyalties. People who want their main tribe to be people who happen to share their same politics? They’re pretty weird.

Goldberg: I don’t want to veer away from this totally eggheaded conversation, because I’m enjoying it. But can you talk about this in the context of your constituents in red-state Nebraska? We all have possibly distorted understanding of the Trumpian movement because we watch video from rallies and we watch January 6 video, obviously, and it becomes our impression, or my impression at least, that the boiling anger inside the core of the Republican Party has become really toxic. What are you seeing in Nebraska that cuts against the understanding that the majority of Republicans now are these hyper-angry, white, ethno-nationalist, resentment-based, antidemocratic almost, kind of voters who are going to, by 2024, really threaten the nature of our democracy. Is there anything that you’re seeing on the ground among the Republicans in Nebraska that says, “You know what, most people are actually not all in on that”?

Sasse: Well, I feel like I might sound like a broken record on this and I annoy some of the Capitol Hill press corps with it, but the way we cover politics as short-term tribal reaction to reaction to reaction, it’s nonsense. And the vast majority of people don’t want anything to do with it. So I don’t mean to sound self-serving about it, but I’m by far the largest vote-getter in the history of Nebraska. I’m one of nine people in the U.S. Senate who’s never been a politician until I ran in 2014, and I just got reelected in 2020 and I had a Trumpy primary. When I was getting primaried, that was really newsy. When I got 76 percent of the vote, it was no longer sexy.

In the general election, I got the most votes anybody’s ever gotten in the history of Nebraska, despite President Trump telling people to not vote for me three or four weeks before that election. And I got censured by the state Republican Party of Nebraska and by the county GOPs. There are somewhere between 120 and about 400 people who are really active in state politics, out of a state of 2 million. And I get censured by the party. I voted for impeachment after the January 6 moment, and so I got censured repeatedly for that. Those censures are news, but the fact that I set the all-time vote record isn’t news. The vast majority of people don’t want to do politics like this.

I had a reporter shove her iPhone into my rib cage in early August on Capitol Hill saying, “You’ve been ducking us all day!” Like, really? I didn’t know you were looking for me. My team’s pretty good. If you reached out to my office and I didn’t respond, I’m sorry, but that’s not like us. Tell me more. What am I ducking you on? And she was winsome and high EQ, so she de-escalates and she goes, “I don’t mean you’re really ducking us; it’s just, we want to know!” And she references some other folks on the press corps with her: “We want to know. What do you think about what Matt Gaetz said, about what AOC said, about what Marjorie Taylor Greene did? And I don’t give a shit. In a republic, nobody should care about that. You just named three people who aren’t serious adults. They don’t actually have an agenda for 2030 America. And the reason I ran for reelection is because I’m worried about the future of work, the future of war, the First Amendment culture in a world that moves to primarily digital rather than in-person public squares.

Goldberg: Let me just push back on something. You say that they’re nonsense and fine, or that they’re ridiculous, not serious people. You’re talking about people who can and already have in some ways instigated violence, violence that can tip our society into some kind of dystopian new reality. How do you—fine, I recognize that Marjorie Taylor Greene is not the norm among elected Republicans.

Sasse: Nor is AOC the norm, which is why she got eight votes when she tried to take down the Iron Dome funding. And yet the press acts like AOC—not all the press, but it’s very typical to act like AOC speaks for like 60 percent of 51 percent of the country. That’s nonsense. It’s just—these people are really good at doing short-term screaming.

Goldberg: I’ll come back to the violence thing if we have a moment, but it sounds like you’re saying that the press and social-media echo chambers are creating this idea that the extremists really have much more power over ordinary—maybe actively engaged citizens, but ordinary citizens—than they actually do. And so that it’s up to the press.

Sasse: No, I don’t mean that. I think we’re going through a revolution of technology that makes us consume in different ways. We used to have three channels. Not everything was great about that. I couldn’t watch the college-football game you wanted to watch. But in the late 1950s, I Love Lucy had something like a 68 percent weekly share and a 91 percent monthly share. I Love Lucy wasn’t important content, don’t mishear me, but it was shared content. And so to the degree that technology and media consumption habits have both pros and cons, we should recognize some of the cons. My oldest kid is 20. In her entire lifetime, the most-watched programming in America was Sunday Night Football for three weeks in 2014—hit a 12 percent share. We used to have a world where a lot of times there were 70 and 80 and 90 percent issues people could talk about in common. Now, when a really high watermark is an 8 percent or a 10 percent or 12 percent moment, the political addicts become another niche. But that’s not what the American public wants. I’ll cite some polling from last summer. When you ask the American people, do you identify more as a Republican or more as a Democrat, and you don’t give them a “none of the above” option as an answer, it still wins. Forty-six percent of the public pushes back on the question and says, “I don’t like any of those people. I don’t want those parties representing me.” I think it was 29 percent lean Democrat, 25 percent lean Republican, and 46 percent say “Screw you, that’s a dumb question. I don’t like those people.” Our politics are overwhelmingly anti-politics, and the clickbait ways that we respond to it imply that people are actually for a far-left agenda or for your ethno-nationalist right-wing agenda, when they’re not. Most people are voting against the opposite extreme, not for something. We need a politics of vision, not a politics of grievance.

Goldberg: Last question for you, and it’s a large question, and you have to answer it efficiently. What’s the way out of this? I mean, we’re heading toward an election; we have now the precedent of a president of the United States denying the reality of an election result. We haven’t really had that experience. That, as you well know, is filtering down, maybe not into the average Nebraska voter, but at the state, at the county level, the people you’re talking about who are censuring you—this is becoming a new norm that says “If you lose your election, don’t consent to the loss.” And all of democracy hinges on the willingness of the loser to concede to the winner. What’s the off-ramp for all of this, before we hit this 2024 moment that could end up on January 20, 2025, with two people claiming the White House? Which has a very nondemocratic vibe to it.

Sasse: Well said. Let’s speak to the point you’re making procedurally about democracy over the last year and over the next three. But I still think from where you started, Jeff, we have to go up one more level, because the political-addiction conversation is not actually representative of what people need or want in a long-term republic. But to your point, I think I’ve been pretty clear that the election of Joe Biden—I acknowledged him right away that first week, and then when the outgoing president said all the nonsense and now is conducting and trying to get other states to conduct these audits, which continually show that Joe Biden won the election, people telling the truth is really essential to the maintenance of a republic.

We just don’t do basic civics enough, so that the vast majority of Americans don’t even know what happened in 1800, and why it was so glorious that John Adams willingly vacates the White House and Thomas Jefferson takes over, and folks in Europe say, “Well, that must be fake news. There must be some myth because nobody’s ever willingly laid down power before.” You couldn’t have this Cincinnatus moment and the glories of March 1801, as Adams leaves office and allows Jefferson to go in, that should be a moment that all American schoolkids celebrate. It should be a basis of patriotism. The most-read document in American history until the Civil War, after the Bible, but the most-read political document in America wasn’t the Declaration of Independence, wasn’t the Constitution; it was Washington’s farewell address. And the idea that in 1796, Washington would plan to explain to the American people, and his former revolutionary soldiers had this society of Cincinnatus to celebrate this idea of willingly laying down power, that belief is predicated on understanding that political power is not the center of life or identity. In a republic, the only way things actually work is if there’s a broad-based understanding of meaning being somewhere other than the seats of political power.

Goldberg: We have to wrap, but let me just stay on this for one more second. I just want to know. You’re a political leader. What is the way out of this? And you’re right, to borrow from Saddam Hussein, the mother of all norms in America is that politicians give up power, peacefully. How do you keep your party from becoming anti-small-d democratic?

Sasse: Well, first of all, there aren’t political parties in America right now. There’s only the last guy who won. So I’m not doing any sort of false symmetry here. But this idea that there’s a mandate for radical change in D.C., in a country where the American people just decided to elect Joe Biden president and to give the Republicans the majority in the Senate, and then Donald Trump decided to go to Georgia and make sure that Republicans lost our majority. Donald Trump stole the majority, the Senate Republican majority, from our party by electing Democrats in Georgia because he wanted to say the lie that he won the election over and over again. And it turns out voters didn’t want to do that. Suburban Republican women in Georgia decided to elect Democrats to the Georgia Senate seats, because they were tired of Donald Trump being on the stage, lying that he won an election, that he didn’t win. So it would be worth recognizing that the American people decided to flip two Senate seats in Georgia because they didn’t want that to happen.

But now we pretend, or regularly there’s talk on Capitol Hill that acts like there’s some mandate for the largest legislative package, at least since the Great Society programs of the ’60s and maybe since the 1930s. That’s not true. The American people don’t want this $3.5 trillion, 17-issue area reconciliation bill. And yet people do that because they misread anti-politics as a mandate for something. Another thing we could do is we could celebrate the fact that Mike Pence told the truth on January 6 and refused to participate in these things. It turns out lots and lots of Republicans don’t actually want that kind of frenzied addiction to the moment, which says power is the only thing that matters. What most people want is to have a democratic Republicanism that is stable a decade into the future so they can figure out how they’re going to navigate work disruptions and help their kids plan for a world where we’re gonna have to create a civilization of lifelong workers. We’ve not been very good at having the long-term conversation. And a republic is sustained by those healthy middlebrow people saying “One cheer for politics.”

Goldberg: Well, we could go on, but we can’t. We’re not allowed to. We have to move on to the next thing.